31st May 2023


Are EU deforestation rules about recolonising the Global South?

  • The EU deforestation-free regulation does not provide a legal basis for protection of data privacy of millions of hectares from foreign farmers (Photo: Dave Herring)
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The European Union's Deforestation-Free Regulation (or EU-DR) is the new EU tool claimed to address deforestation — by imposing a unilateral rule that obliges companies importing certain goods to certify that such products are not linked to deforestation, after 31 December 2020.

Those targeted products are either in direct competition with the EU's products such as beef, soya, palm oil, and timber products, or not farmed in EU — such as coffee, cocoa, and rubber. The EU-DR has excluded the EU's own degraded and destroyed millions of hectares of peatlands, emitting massive pollution. It is known that rewetting all EU peatland is against EU farming subsidies.

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Clearly, the EU-DR is about how to force other nations, especially in the Gobal South, to follow EU rules to protect its own products and is not about real concern of the environment. If it is a genuine concern on the link of farming and environmental degradation, EU drained and degraded peatland should have been included.

The EU unilaterally imposed an obligation of origin-tracing by using geolocation of where the products are farmed. Farmers, including millions of small farmers who own less or around one hectare and living across the Global South should all buy smartphones and geotag their farms to be given, known, processed, verified and inspected by EU officials. Clearly, with no regard of the exporting countries' laws of data privacy.

Meanwhile, EU itself has strict rules on geotagging. Articles 7 and 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights provide the legal basis for respect for private life and for the protection of personal data. The landscape of EU data protection across the continent is built upon these "indivisible, universal values," and are translated into two different EU privacy laws: the ePrivacy Directive (ePD) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), regulating how data is allowed to be collected, processed and stored.

They empower individuals in EU with such rights as the right-of-prior-consent before having their data processed, right-of-access to their collected data and the right of erasure of their collected data. Clearly, forcing foreign farmers to surrender their data privacy to EU is a violation of fundamental human rights.

National security implications?

Location data is not only personal matter but also has national security implications. Take the case of Strava, my favourite cycling and running app. In 2018, Strava's heatmap showed sensitive information about the location of a remote Western military base, by mapping soldiers jogging around the perimeter. They shared their jogging activities without realising the strategic implications. Immediately Strava responded to this strategic concern and eventually changed the original version of the heat map.

Just imagined the collection of data location of millions of hectares of foreign lands in the database of EU. This data can be used for strategic activities. The so-called Eco-Spy Project used data from Cold War spy photography, taken by the American Corona spy satellite during the Cold War as sources. The head of MI6 revealed that the British intelligence service has started a programme called "green spying" to monitor industrial countries emission. The New York Times had a special report about Linda Zall, a former CIA analyst, telling the story of "highly classified struggle to put the nation's spy satellites onto a radical new job: environmental sleuthing."

What if, say, China required the EU to provide the geolocation of its farmland associated with wine, on account of respecting the human rights of seasonal farmers. Recently, Lighthouse Reports, Euronews, Der Spiegel and Mediapart conducted joint investigations on seasonal farmworkers in EU, with worrying results.

They interviewed dozens of farmworkers across the continent. They "complained of unpaid hours, working under tremendous pressure, with very little water or protection, some fainting and vomiting from the exhaustion. They showed us dire housing conditions and spoke of cases of verbal, physical and even sexual abuse."

Now, wine exports of €2.5bn from the EU flows to China. Thus, China may have the reasons to "trust but verify" that EU wine is not tainted with human rights abuses against seasonal farmworkers. Will EU be willing to comply with Chinese regulations that obliges EU wine makers to send their geolocation to China?

Data leakage

The EU-DR does not provide a legal basis for protection of data privacy of millions of hectares from foreign farmers, and this data is at risk of arbitrary use by the EU, including selling it to third party or sharing it with different countries.

In addition, it is no secret that many EU individuals in official capacities have been arrested for being double agents — there are recent examples from Italy, Austria, Poland, Bulgaria and Latvia. Such data is at risk of being shared, sold, and even stolen for various strategic purposes.

The EU-DR has more misadventures requiring deeper analysis such as: the cost implication for small farmers to implement it, and on timber products, the EU will confuse the public as it creates three standards (FLEGT-VPA, EU-DR, and private voluntary standards, such as the FSC, that monopolise global timber standards).

There is, however, a larger implication of this regulation that runs counter to EU values and principles — namely, what does the EU actually want in the current global geo-strategic shift?

As the Global South and its smallholder farmers are being targeted by the EU-DR, the critical question is: does EU want to recolonise them again with different ways and means, while wanting to decouple from China, and seeking to make new policy shift to Russia as well as wanting to have strategic independence from the US?

Trust in international relations is very elusive and is the basis of cooperation among equal. The EU-DR endangers trust-building between EU and the Global South. Let alone that it smacks of colonialism.

Author bio

Arif Havas Oegroseno is Indonesia's ambassador to Germany.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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